I watch my nephews, both young adults, eat a whole pizza covered in cheese, sausage and pepperoni, with a side of French fries, and think: You don’t know how lucky you are. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young who can eat anything they want without getting sick, without worrying it will raise their cholesterol levels or cause acid reflux, and without gaining weight.
The older we get, the more restrictions we face in life: not driving at night, especially in heavy city traffic; avoiding extreme exercise because our knees (or back or hips—insert appropriate physical issue) are worn out; and avoiding late dinners or concerts because we’re just too darned tired. But one of the hardest is having to cut back on our favorite foods because of health issues. When you can’t do other things, eating becomes one of life’s small pleasures, as many people discovered during the pandemic.
Many years ago, a doctor told me to stop eating dairy because it was creating sinus problems. So I switched to soy or almond milk, and stopped eating cheese, which was not easy because cheese adds taste to almost everything, including my favorite Mexican meals. But it wasn’t worth the clogged sinuses and headaches, unless I was in England, where making cheese is an art.
I remember all those foods I ate with abandon when I was young, with no thought as to whether or not they were healthy—lasagna, pastrami sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, barbecue ribs.
Several years ago I discovered that eating wheat—in the form of bread or pasta—caused an allergic reaction. Even though I can get gluten-free bread, it doesn’t measure up to crunchy French bread or a thick loaf of rye bread. And gluten-free pasta doesn’t have the same satisfying texture as wheat pasta. But I also avoid bread and pasta (as well as rice and potatoes) because I have a high-glycemic index (otherwise known as pre-diabetes) and need to avoid starchy foods.
I love Italian food, but even if I use gluten-free pasta, the tomato sauce is a problem, because I have acid reflux. That also means I can’t enjoy salsa, which I pour on everything to make it taste better: eggs, soups, stews, bean burgers.
I remember all those foods I ate with abandon when I was young, with no thought as to whether or not they were healthy—spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, pastrami sandwiches, fried chicken, cinnamon rolls, barbecue ribs. Just listing them makes my mouth water. I’ve found substitutes—like cauliflower pizza—but every time I pick up a frozen Home Run (from Chicago) pizza for my neighbors, I salivate at the picture on the package of thick cheese topped with greasy Italian sausage; I can almost smell the Chicago pizzeria.
But imagining the smell is as close as I’ll get to Italian sausage, because I rarely eat meat anymore. As a committed environmentalist, I can see that raising cattle is harming the planet, and I don’t want to eat an animal that has been caged all its life.
What tipped me over the eating edge was advice from a natural healer, who I had consulted about sleep issues, to avoid foods made with soy. Since tofu was one of my main sources of protein, I couldn’t imagine an alternative. She also said to avoid spicy foods, which I love, and salads, which are my main dinner options in summer. I felt a sense of despair. What was I supposed to eat?
Beans, any kind of beans, and thank goodness there are hundreds of them: adzuki, black, white, pinto, navy, split peas, lentils garbanzo. But after several weeks of trying to find a diet that was both healthy and delicious, I decided a compromise was in order. Life is too short to not indulge once in a while, so I’ve made some adjustments to my mainly beans diet: an occasional spinach enchilada (with cheese); a little salsa with my beans; gluten-free fettucine with just a bit of tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.
At least I can still enjoy wine and chocolate—or at least no one has yet told me I can’t. And I’m not going to ask.